Can Islam be reformed?
The question is in no way meant to be provocative, let alone insulting. But the world, including vast numbers of Muslims, needs this question answered.
After having studied Arabic at college and lectured on comparative religion for decades, and having devoted years to writing my upcoming book comparing American values with leftist and Islamist values, I have become convinced of two things regarding Islam: It must be reformed, and it can be reformed.
Both suppositions are highly controversial. Few believing Muslims think that Islam needs to be reformed; the suggestion would strike most religious Muslims as absurd, if not insulting and ultimately blasphemous. And it would strike many non-Muslim critics of Islam as naive. As Lord Cromer, British consul-general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, put it in a quote known to all Western students of Islam, “Islam reformed is Islam no longer.”
Let’s deal first with the question of whether Islam needs reforming.
The case for it is compelling. Here are a few reasons:
- Majority-Muslim and Islam-based countries are not, and have not been, free societies. According to the 2010 Freedom House “Freedom in the World” survey, of the world’s 47 Muslim-majority countries, only two are free, 18 are partly free, and 27 are not free. There is no honest explanation for this nearly total absence of liberty in Muslim countries that does not reflect in some way on Islam.
- Muslim treatment of Jews and Christians in places like medieval Spain was morally far superior to the treatment of non-Christians by European Christians during the same period. But in the modern period, nowhere that Islam has controlled has afforded non-Muslims anywhere near the equality that non-Christians have taken for granted in the Christian world.
- There was a burst of intellectual and scientific creativity in the Muslim world for a few hundred years, but then the opponents of reason came to dominate Islam, and with it came a loss of scientific and intellectual curiosity.
How could it have been otherwise? The dominant Muslim view was that the natural world had no laws. Everything that occurred did so solely because Allah willed it. If an arrow hit its target, it was not because of the archer’s ability or wind patterns or laws of physics; it was because Allah willed it.
According to a United Nations report written by Arab scholars, the Arab world’s lack of interest in the non-Arab and non-Muslim worlds is so great that in any given year comparatively tiny Greece translates more books into Greek than all the Arab countries combined translate into Arabic.
- Regarding women, one cannot name a culture or religion in which the status of women is as low as it is in many Muslim societies. Moreover, the status of women has actually declined in many Muslim societies in the present generation. For example, the veil is more common in Egypt today than it was a hundred years ago.
- In nearly every Muslim country in which non-Muslims live (usually Christians) – from Nigeria to Egypt to Iraq – they suffer persecution.
- A very small percentage of Muslims are terrorists. But nearly every international terrorist is Muslim. And according to every poll I have seen, at least 70 million of the world’s more than a billion Muslims support Islamist actions and theology.
- Every state that calls itself an Islamic republic and rules according to Islamic law is a totalitarian state, and it is usually a bloodthirsty one. Saudi Arabia is an example of the first; Taliban Afghanistan, Islamist Iran and Islamist Sudan are examples of both.
So, yes, Islam needs to be reformed. This is no insult to Muslims. Judaism and Christianity have undergone major changes. And needed to.
Can Islam be reformed? I do not agree with Lord Cromer. I believe it can.
What is necessary is that Muslim reformers:
- Honestly acknowledge the Muslim moral record – i.e. the lack of liberty in Muslim nations, the killing of large numbers of non-Muslims, the low status of women, etc. This does not necessitate rejecting the Quran or Islam.
- Eschew incorporating Shariah into state law and oppose the establishment of any Islamic theocracy (which is not, in any event, Quran-based, according to moderate Muslims).
- Publicly and unambiguously condemn all violence in the name of Islam, including violence against Israel.
- Express a deep appreciation of the moral record of America, including its superb treatment of both its Muslim citizens and Muslim immigrants, along with a complete rejection of the Islamist notion that America is hostile to Muslims.
- Fully accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, and distance themselves from the Muslim/Arab obsession with Israel.
At this very moment, there are Muslim reformers who believe and express all five of these propositions.
Examples include University of Delaware professor Muqtedar Khan, who runs www.ijtihad.org: “American Muslims really have no reason to feel they are victims of anything. …” The Muslim-American community is thriving, proof of “America’s benevolence and tolerance of Islam.”
Another is Ahmed al-Rahim, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia: “The most important message is that we condemn all kinds of hate speech, including anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism, and that we come out as boldly as possible against violence committed by Muslims in Iraq, in Israel. …”
Regarding the Muslim obsession with Israel, Khan has written: “It is time the leaders of the American Muslim community woke up and realized that … Islam is not about defeating Jews or conquering Jerusalem. It is about mercy, about virtue, about sacrifice and about duty. Above all, it is the pursuit of moral perfection.”
Zainab Al-Suwaij, a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and executive director of the moderate American Islamic Congress, publicly declared that America “has given Iraqis the most precious gift any nation has ever given another – the gift of democracy and the freedom to determine its own future.”
And Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a physician in Arizona whose parents fled Syria in the 1960s, is the founder and chairman of the board of the moderate American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A believing and practicing Muslim, Jasser advocates American values and promotes a Quran-based life to be practiced by the individual Muslim and never imposed by the state. He is courageous in confronting the Islamist Muslim groups that the mainstream media in the Western world have promoted to appear as the spokesmen for Western Muslims.
As Jasser says of organizations such as CAIR and other so-called Muslim civil rights organizations, “There was more concern with hate crimes against Muslims, which I think were relatively low; there was more focus on that than actually looking at the violence and the hate speech that has been committed in the name of Islam.”
Islam is too important to deny its need to reform. And it is too important to deny its ability to ever reform.
And if it does reform, Muslims who have embraced America and American values will lead the way.